"A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behaviour, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. " -Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried. From 1978-1979 to 1988-1989 Hollywood produced an explosion of films concerning Vietnam.
Films depicting the Vietnam "experience" for better or for worse, act as tool for memory for those who were not there first hand to experience it, to a certain extent we can feel the pains of war or at least learn of the pains of war, through film. Although at the same time, the vision, feeling and pain are ours to take in and remember, however they are passed down to us. It is our choice on how we accept these films, either with a pinch of salt, without question or somewhere in between.
For the Americans, the experience of Vietnam was one of loss, they lost the war in 1973 and the country in 1975, this loss haunts them. Ten years after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam became a commodity for the American culture industry, publishers and producers were working it for all its worth, books, documentaries, films, music, advertisements, the list was endless. Many American films concerning Vietnam do not portray the Vietnam War in sense of the truth, so how does the audience know they are receiving correct information?
With many directors and producers coming from many angles, each director has a different opinion and angle of what happened. Some films have tried to go for ratings and revenue by exaggerating the more dramatic points of the film while others have tried to stick to the facts. By exaggerating the film it becomes tainted and has provided biased information to the viewer. The book, Inventing Vietnam edited by Michael Anderegg, produces an overview of all the major films that have dealt with the Vietnam War and the events that led up to and followed the war.
Anderegg claims that films such as Platoon, Gardens of Stone, and Hamburger Hill are "memorial films". By the term "memorial" he means their portrayal of the war is one of remembrance and reflection towards the lost Americans. Platoon opened with; "this film is a memorial" and concludes with "dedicated as a memorial to the men and women who fought in the Vietnam War" (Kinney). Other films in the book portray the Vietnam War through its veterans. Rambo is a good personification of millenarianism and right wing revisionism.
The Rambo films indisputably revenge fantasies, and both superhuman masculine power conferred upon Rambo and cathartic violence characterizing his responses to wrongs are a transparent, and disturbing, strategy of compensation for post-defeat feelings of frustration and inadequacy"(Hellmann). In short he claims these films were created to soothe over the fighting men in Vietnam who felt unimportant because they lost the war. There are another two types of category these films can fall into, the one of the stylised message films, who use the setting of the war to develop complex themes, such as Apocalypse Now and Deer Hunter.
Or that of the 'flag waving' films that portray the veterans as being extracted from the evil grip of the Vietnamese communists, such as the Rambo films, Uncommon Valor and Missing In Action. Although the two categories seem radically different, both contain interesting similarities: a portrayal of veterans as victims and a general lack of realism. Many of the films made deals with different aspects of the war and has a distinctly different feel to it, for example, Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon, both directed by Oliver Stone are personal stories of Vietnam veterans.
The Deer Hunter depicts how the war affected different men differently. While each producer was trying to make a box office hit, some succeeded and others 'flopped'; they were also trying to tell us something about the war in Vietnam and are somewhat reflecting the overall sentiments of the times. Most try to make political statements, as is the case with The Green Berets, Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon. Some are more overt in their views than others, and some are more focused upon the literary aspects of story telling. A political focus in Vietnam War movies is both very useful and dangerous.
It is useful in trying to form consensus in the public and forming a context that everyone understands; this is very important in the case of the Vietnam war because a consensus was hard to come by during and even after the war completely ended in 1975. It is also dangerous because it is easy to get it wrong. Andrew Martin explores this occurrence in his book, Receptions of War: Vietnam in American Culture: "Hollywood declined to get involved in the Vietnam War, precisely because there appeared to be no way of approaching the subject without automatically alienating large numbers of potential viewers".
Along with making a political statement, movies also influence our perceptions of the veterans. They are often portrayed as emotionally unstable and it seems that all of them have posttraumatic stress disorder. Examples are Rambo, Born on the Fourth of July, and The Deer Hunter. Martin explains that veterans returning from World War II were portrayed in a wide range of experiences, but "Vietnam veterans, by contrast, tended to be portrayed as beyond redemption; they were seen, in fact, as a positive threat to the social order, and the immediate enemy and threat to society was now the estranged veteran".
Films such as Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July both directed by Oliver Stone which were based on the actual experiences of Oliver Stone and fellow veteran, Ron Kovic. Platoon is often hailed as the most realistic of all the war films, because of its ability to "represent the terror and the numbing confusion of daily battle". Born on the Fourth of July spends less time in combat and more depicting the life of the veteran after his return home. The question that has to be addressed when watching these films is how generalized is their experiences?
After all they are just one man's story and, as stated before, each war film has a different feel to it because they are made from different experiences. And when collective memory is expresses and they remember traumatic events they do not want to remember the bad thingd they did to other people, and remember themselves as victims of wrongdoing. Critically acclaimed Platoon featured murders, atrocities, toxic sergeants, incompetent officers, and confused soldiers. This film seems to be a sumptuous feast for haters of all things 'Vietnam'.
Perhaps because American soldiers were portrayed as oppressors in Platoon, few people were outraged at the Nazi Battle Flag flown on an American Tank after the big battle scene. This movie so completely degrades the American soldier that a member of the Vietnamese Politboro, Bui Tinh, openly praised it. Comrade Tinh was a North Vietnamese Army General Staff officer during the war. "They use it", he said, "to teach young Vietnamese about the American's "Imperialist" war". Platoon expands the focus from veterans to all Americans with its emphasis on showing the disruptive nature of the war.
Because the divisions affected all Americans and many had friends or relatives die in the war they can watch a film such as Platoon and view themselves as victims. Even though the majority of the nation long supported American involvement in Vietnam, by empathizing with veterans they are forgiven of guilt. This reaction seems very similar to that of Germans and Japanese after World War II. The German people remembered the fire-bombings and atrocities committed by Soviet troops rather than the Holocaust.
The Japanese preferred to remember Hiroshima and not Nanking. Such reactions, while somewhat dishonest, are normal human defence mechanisms against guilt that even self-righteous America can fall. Susan White's (Inventing Vietnam) critique of Stanley Kubrick's film, Full Metal Jacket is formed round the experiences of young men in 'boot camp', and when they're sent off to war in Vietnam. White points out that this film, like many others, is laced with Hollywood stereotyping Orientals and is too concerned with the conception of male bonding.
Kubrick is an ironic version of the already ironic Crane text, both film and novel achieve a peculiar impersonality of tone despite their close recounting of a young man's experience in a war whose political implications are dealt with almost not at all"(White). The screenplay for this film was co-authored by Michal Herr, a Vietnam War correspondent, it seems that films involving veterans in their production would stand up to criticisms and add a substantial validity to them. The critics deemed the film a disappointment and claimed that the integrity was undermined due to the filming taking place in England; it was a failure on all counts.
Full Metal Jacket looks at truth versus fiction in the media and Kubrick uses his political and cultural sensibility to capture his audience through cinematic story telling and to a lesser degree shows the realities of basic training and not much else. The Green Berets, the earliest of the Vietnam War films, stars the very patriotic John Wayne and depicts pre-1965 Vietnam with a World War II approach. The film opens with a press conference hosted by the Green Berets, attempting to answer touchy, difficult questions of sceptical reporters as to why they are fighting in Vietnam.
The emphasis is put on sympathy for the Green Berets as the 'rude-radical' journalists accost them. The whole film resembles a press conference trying to assure the sceptical public who are in need of some answers. John Wayne (director and star) propagandises the military throughout the entire film and top government officials oversaw the filming. 'The film, of course, is an unintentionally humorous, thin and messy shell for anti- communist sentiments' (Renata Adler, New York Times).
The film came across as a government message, with all its pro-war and anti- communist opinions and excessive violence was just what the government wanted it to be, as they undeniably had a hand in production. They were wise to choose Wayne as their messenger, because according to Gary Wills "The Green Berets was a commercial success despite all critical ridicule". After all that, we are reminded of what John Wayne himself said of the film; "The left-wingers are shredding my flesh, but like Liberace, we're bawling all the way to the bank".
In rare examples, films also come through with true accounts of what happened "Alone among bankable Hollywood directors, Oliver Stone lends the Vietnam film the moral authority of the witness" (Doherty). Stone's Born On The Fourth Of July is based on the witness theory, "I was the man, I suffered, I was there". The use of arguable eye witnesses does not necessarily make Stone's films more compelling, rather it values the more authoritative views. The major question regarding Vietnam War films is; how confident can we be when watching these films that we are seeing and consequently, on some level, learning about the lessons of war.
This is important because ultimately the creators of films have the loudest voices in reaching the public and also in shaping public sentiment on various issues. And as a result of this, they should be held to a higher standard when depicting an actual event, whether or not they are trying to make a box-office hit. Films are for entertainment, but more importantly they serve a purpose in communicating to younger people and generations yet to be born the lessons of war. The choice then, is how will the viewers accept these films and do we accept them whole-heartedly or with scepticism.
There is no simple solution, because each film is different and conveys a different message to the audience that it tries to reach. But if an audience can take in a film, any film with history or cultural changing implications, with some perspective of the past, either through personal experience or learned experience from others, then that audience can view the film with knowledgeable scepticism. And knowledge is the best filter for gaining the truth. Oscar Wilde, made as good an observation that can be made for the Vietnam War genre in American film; "when art develops a purpose it becomes propaganda".